At 94 Fulton Avenue, just a 10 minute walk from campus, there is an ordinary Poughkeepsie house that most wouldn’t take a second look. Upon closer inspection, however, it becomes clear that it is not just a home, but a place of worship. Known as the Chabad on Fulton, the house, which the Sanoff family converted over the summer, is now open and serving the college community of Poughkeepsie.
Chabad is a practice that follows the principles of Orthodox Judaism. Chabad Houses, often just referred to as Chabads, provide a variety of services to the Jews in their community without a membership charge. Chabad is an acronym for the Hebrew words chochmah (wisdom), binah (comprehension) and da’at (knowledge), the three major components of intellect, according to the Chabad website, Chabad.org.
Chabad on Fulton is part of an international organization called Chabad on Campus which serves 150 colleges worldwide. Co-director of the Student Center Dalia Sanoff said, “As part of that organization the goal is to offer a place for college students to explore, enhance and delve into their Jewish identity. There is a stage in life where people are exploring their identity in general, and especially in today’s world, this is the time to ask ourselves, what does it mean that I am a Jew? What does it mean to me?”
The Sanoff family, which consists of Dalia Sanoff, her husband Rabbi Daniel Sanoff and their son David, live on the second floor of the Chabad, making it homier. It is typical for Chabads to be the homes of those who direct it. Dalia Sanoff said she believes that this is what makes their Chabad so appealing to students. Calling it a home away from home, she said that she believes a college Chabad is a place where students should feel comfortable to come and practice Judaism.
“Kids want home cooked chicken soup and matzo balls, and somewhere to sit on the couch where they don’t have to worry about laundry, so that’s us” she said.
According to some of the Vassar community, the Chabad has succeeded in creating a welcoming environment. Gavriella Kaplan ’14 is one Jewish student who has found the Chabad to be an excellent place of worship.
Said Kaplan, “I feel at home whenever I am with the Sanoffs because I attend a Chabad back home in New Jersey.” She said she feels connected to the Chabad on Fulton because it provides a similar experience to the one she grew up with and prefers Chabad services because they are more traditional than those practiced by some other sects of Judaism. Because of the way the Chabad is run, Kaplan feels that it does provide a taste of home. “I babysat their son one day, and when I walked into their home there was Israeli chocolate and honey cake for Rosh Hashana on their kitchen table; I felt like I was back at home.”
The Chabad, while it follows the principles of Orthodox Judaism, welcomes all Jews regardless of their level of spirituality, keeping in mind the audience of their services. Said Dalia Sanoff, “We work with a certain crowd and if your serving community is an average of 60 year old men and women with grown children, your approach is going to be very different. We offer a taste of traditional Judaism, which is different than certain things that exists on other campuses. In that sense, we don’t alter.”
Because of their own backgrounds with Judaism, the Sanoffs believe that they are well-equipped to serve a college community. Both come from fairly non-observant Jewish families and became more religious as they got older. Daniel Sanoff began with Chabads on Campus during his college years at the University of Vermont, while Dalia Sanoff worked with Chabad for Backpackers in Israel. Wrote Daniel Sanoff in an emailed statement“During my teenage years, I started to search for more meaning in my life and I came across Chassidic, mystical Judaism. While I was in college, I was looking for a way to infuse lofty, spiritual ideals and values into a modern era.” This is when he came to focus on Chassidic Judaism. The Sanoff family said they feel that their combined experiences are what really help them relate to the college community.
Realizing that college students are at a difficult point in their lives, the Sanoffs hope to provide a place where students can take a step back from their lives and look inward. Daniel Sanoff pointed out that this is often hard in the age of the smart phone, in a time where students are pulled every which way. He wrote, “Just like a businessman needs to make an evaluation of accounts to be sure that he is running a profitable, effective business; this also applies to who is striving for spirituality. They must make an account of where they want to be, where they are and how they are getting to their destined. This lack of time and energy to find one’s self indeed provides a strong barrier against spiritual development.”
The Chabad, although very new, offers weekly Shabbat services, services for the High Holidays and personal learning sessions. In the coming months they plan to host a Hanukkah party, plan Shabbats for sports teams, create group learning sessions and come into Vassar’s dorms to host hot soup study breaks in Vassar’s dorms.
And while the Chabad may be a “Chabad for Vassar,” the Sanoff family also works with other local colleges, such as the Culinary Institute of America (CIA), Marist and Dutchess Community College, which have smaller populations of Jewish students. Upcoming events can be found on their Facebook page, Chabad on Fulton.
“We provide an outlet for everyone to express their personal connection to Judaism. For some their connection is hot matzo ball soup, for others it’s a study session, for some a holiday event, for others it’s a social event and for some it’s a personal one on one talk about their views on life, morals, goals or whatever is on their mind and heart. Our address is one where every aspect of life is addressed, refined and celebrated” wrote Daniel Sanoff.